Bulgaria is a beautiful country in Europe that isn’t overrun with tourists yet! If you’ve been curious about whether Bulgaria is worth visiting, but you just keep reading about Sofia, here is a list for you!
While Sofia is a worthwhile stop in the country, you could happily spend a couple weeks in Bulgaria and never set foot in the capital city. There is so much to discover in this affordable travel destination.
*Do bring cash when exploring outside of Sofia. There are still many restaurants, attractions, and washrooms, that require you to have cash!*
Often overlooked for it’s larger sister to the north, Varna – Burgas holds it’s own as a charming seaside town with a relaxed atmostphere.
We prefer Burgas to Varna even though it’s smaller, and on paper there is a little less to do, because it’s a comforting city that is nice to just “be” in.
Burgas is on the Black Sea and has a beautiful Sea Garden and a massive stretch of sandy beach.
Restaurants line the beautiful walkway of the Sea Garden and its an amazing place to take in the sunset. After dusk, head to the old town for some old European charm.
Here is my complete guide to Burgas, including where to eat and sleep!
If pleasant Bulgarian company is what you are after, no promises, but Burgas is your best bet! We did find the townspeople to be a little more friendly than other parts of the country.
I’m not saying Bulgarian people hate tourists (or at least not for the most part!) the Bulgarian culture just doesn’t have the same resting smile face as some other parts of the world.
The people may not actually be unfriendly, they just don’t value the same pleasantries as we are used to.
Regardless of the reason, at first it can be incredibly off-putting, but eventually you get used to it, and it became a challenge. How ridiculously friendly must we be to get smiles in return? We shall find out.
Aside from Sofia we have spent the most time in Burgas.
Plovdiv Ampitheatre and Old Town
Less than a two hour drive from the capital city of Sofia, is the former capital city of Bulgaria: Plovdiv.
Named the European Capital of Culture in 2019, Plovdiv has roots and ruins dating back to Roman times. More than that, Plovdiv claims to be the oldest city in Europe, having uncovered evidence of settlements from as early as 6000 BC!
No matter exactly HOW old Plovdiv is, it’s an ancient city without being pretentious. It attracts lots of young, cool tourists but isn’t the crowded nightmare that other European cities become in the summer.
Plovdiv Roman Theatre of Philippopolis
The Roman amphitheatre in Plovdiv is amazingly well preserved and overlooks the town from a hilltop. The perfect spot for your instagrammable photos!
The entrance fee has skyrocketed from 1 lev to 5 lev over the past few years (Just kidding! I mean it really is 5 lev [$3 USD] but that’s still cheap!)
The ticket provides amazing value and you can walk all over the ancient steps and stage. When we went (off season!) there was only one other pair, and they didn’t stay long.
The entrance fee is actually nice to keep the place a little quieter. In my experience, Bulgarians generally don’t believe they should pay to see “their own” things. In Plovdiv, many take pictures from outside the gates, because they see the ticket as a scam.
Here is the full guide to visiting the Ancient Roman Ruins of the Plovdiv Amphitheatre, including how it was found!
Plovdiv Old Town
The Old Town of Plovdiv is actually quite large compared to many European cities that have a designated “old town” area.
This is not to be confused with the “Ancient Town” of Plovdiv which is within the old town area, but is only a few streets of historical Bulgarian timber architecture.
The ancient town is also nice, and worth the stroll, but it’s over quickly.
The old town also encompasses the large pedestrian area at Plovdiv’s centre, including the ancient stadium of Philippopolis, as well as the ancient theatre.
More ancient stuff? That’s right! Let’s start referring to Plovdiv as “Little Rome” because it has allll the goods. The stadium is a well preserved, well… stadium, that has been excavated and sits proudly in the pedestrian area.
Beyond the ancient spectacles, the Plovdiv old town offers a multitude of chic little places to eat, and makes for a very picturesque stroll!
We sadly did not allow enough time to properly explore all that Plovdiv has to offer, but as always, we hope to return!
Speaking of attractions north of Varna, Aladzha Monastery is an amazing little spot that is somewhat in the middle of nowhere.
This church was carved into the side of a cliff sometime in the 12th century and used for about 600 years!
The remains of a few frescoes are still visible in the plain rooms.
The entrance fee at last check was 5 Lev for adults and 2 Lev for children.
We went in the evening and it was a fun place to check out after dark! There is also a little museum on the grounds.
Here is everything you need to know about visiting Aladzha Monastery, including how to get there!
Rock-Hewn Churches of Ivanovo
The “churches” at Ivanovo are actually very similar to Aladzha Monastery, but they are an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.
At Ivanovo, there are many more cave churches, but you can only visit one. The one you can visit is spectacular, with a window looking out from the cliff, and fantastic murals.
Ivanovo is about 25 minutes by car to Ruse, which is another beautiful city worth seeing in Bulgaria.
The Rock Hewn Churches of Ivanovo are a little physically demanding to visit, because you need to walk to the top of the rock formation that they are carved into.
Here is my complete guide to visiting Rock Hewn Churches of Ivanovo.
If you’ve toured through beautiful castle grounds in Europe, you may be surprised to learn that there is a quiet spot in Bulgaria that rivals some of the best!
Once a summer palace to the Queen of Romania, in shifting borders this castle and its beautiful grounds landed on the Bulgarian side.
Perched atop a cliff overlooking the Black Sea, the gardens are the statement piece here. Beautiful seasonal flowers bloom in a geometric bed, there is a cactus field, and a few different water features.
The palace itself is simple and maybe not the royal residence you would expect. Compared to other European countries. It’s more of a manor than a castle.
One of the things I love about Bulgaria, is the free access at sights like Balchik Palace (free, as in open.) You are free to roam the gardens, and even the palace doesn’t have large roped-off areas that tourist attractions in other countries have.
The view of the sea is breathtaking, and Balchik Palace and grounds is truly one of my favourite things that we’ve seen in Bulgaria!
Bulgarians don’t like the price tag to get in, so take the bad reviews with a grain of salt. (Although these prices are clearly geared towards tourists, so it’s fair enough to be annoyed.)
Entrance fees are 14 BGN (Leva) for a combo ticket to the garden (8 Lev) and the palace (6 Lev.) Fees seem to change regularly, so children used to get a discount but I am not very clear on whether that is still the case.
Parking is 2 Lev.
The next time we go to Bulgaria I will definitely want to spend more time slow travelling in this area!
Varna Old Town
Despite having just declared my preference to Burgas over Varna, the old city of Varna is still well worth the visit.
Varna is actually quite similar to Burgas, but the main difference is that the sea garden is FAR more commercialized. If you are just walking down the sidewalk, often you will not have a view of the sea until you are a paying customer at one of the restaurants along the beach.
Where Varna DOES have an edge, is in the architecture department. Varna has a lot more of the beautiful old European buildings that make a stroll through the old town so delightful.
There are also Roman ruins here, like the city of Plovdiv.
Varna is the home of a large ruined Roman bath, which is really neat to explore!
You will also end up travelling through Varna if you choose to explore Balchik Palace or other areas up north, so you may as well take it in!
Thracian Tomb of Pomorie
Bulgaria is one of the oldest (or possibly THE oldest) country in Europe, and has so much amazing history to see.
There are actually several Thracian tombs that you can visit in Bulgaria, the most famous of which is Kazanlak, in central Bulgaria. Full disclosure, we have not actually visited Kazanlak, so I can’t speak to whether it is worth the visit or not.
What I CAN tell you, is that the real Kazanlak cannot be visited. In an effort to preserve the paintings and original features, when you visit you will actually tour a replica beside it.
I’m a bit of a stickler for the real thing, so the roadside stop that we DID make, is on my list of things to see and do in Bugaria!
The Thracian tomb of Pomorie could easily be missed on the small scenic route between Burgas and Varna. We actually did miss it, and then went back out of curiosity after we passed the sign.
This tomb is tucked off the road where you almost feel like you are trespassing. Once inside, the access is unprecedented! You are able to walk freely around and could even touch if you wanted to! (We tried to be a bit respectful.)
Admission is 3 leva and you are likely to be there alone, or at least for part of your visit. Some of my favourite pictures of all time are from inside this tomb looking out through the long brick entrance.
Well worth the stop! When we go back to Bulgaria we will allow a lot more time for investigating points of interest from road signs, because this was quite a pleasant surprise!
The entire old town of Nessebar Bulgaria is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Sight!
If you have ever been to Dubrovnik, Nessebar reminds me of a small, Bulgarian version.
It is a hilly little town with narrow cobbled streets sitting above the Black Sea. This is THE best place to find a restaurant with a view in Bulgaria (in my opinion.)
Having a glass of wine in the sunshine at a clifftop restaurant is always a good idea! Better yet when this all takes place in one of Europe’s most affordable destinations.
Because Nessebar is the actual attraction, there isn’t much to see or do in particular. It’s just a nice place to spend an afternoon walking around and taking pictures.
You can actually catch a bus to Nessebar from Burgas for only about $2 – $3.
Similar to Nessebar, Sozopol is another ancient seaside town in Bulgaria that is full of character.
This one is located just south of Burgas, still on the Black Sea of course!
Even though the styles of Nessebar and Sozopol are very similar, there is really no reason to choose. Both are easily accessed from Burgas and are small for exploring.
Both are also busy in the summer! It is worth trying to see these beautiful villages in the shoulder season.
Moving on to a town like nowhere else in the country, Veliko Tarnovo is situated in the hills of north central Bulgaria.
To be honest, I think Veliko Tarnovo is worth the visit just for the drive! The winding roads through the forest are often misty and seem other worldly on your trek towards town.
Once there, the city is built very uniquely around the river. The main highway drives right under the colourful town above.
I’m sure Veliko Tarnovo has it’s busy seasons, but both times that we went it was very quiet and moody. Be prepared for a bit of resourcefulness if you do travel off-season, because many shops and restaurants will be closed.
You will still find places to eat, but you may end up dining at hotel restaurants a lot. An apartment with a kitchen would be a good choice!
Veliko Tarnovo is probably most famous for the fortress (castle) Tsaravets. It is a huge stone wall with well preserved towers that sits just across from the town, high in the hills above the river.
You can spend a few hours exploring Tsaravets and it is a great place to get some pictures, both of the castle walls and the town below.
Overall Veliko Tarnovo is a mystical place that begs exploring.
Belogradchik Fortress (Rocks)
Far away from the rest of the sights on this list, is Belogradchik Fortress in Northwestern Bulgaria.
Also known as Belogradchik Rocks, this fortress is a combination of manmade fortifications in front of impressive natural stone formations.
The history of the fortress dates back to Roman times.
You can spend as little or as much time as you want at Belogradchik. Climbing the stairs to one of the viewpoints takes no more than 10 minutes, but the rocky area is expansive and you could also hike all day.
Easily one of the most distinctive examples of Brutalist architecture is the Buzludzha Monument, which sits right in the centre of Bulgaria.
The monument was constructed between 1974 and 1981 and sits on top of a mountain. You may have already heard of it, it’s the spaceship looking building that is somewhat famous.
What was once officially “Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party,” Buzludzha has fallen into complete disrepair since it was shuttered in 1989 with the fall of Communism.
Efforts to save the unique structure have finally been successful however, and in 2019 some funding was designated for the its preservation.
The process to preserve Buzludzha is ongoing, and seems to have started simply with security nearby. Nobody may actually enter the building to see the retro socialist mosaics, but maybe one day that will be different.
In the meantime, the Buzludzha monument is still a unique and futuristic stop that must be seen on any tour of Bulgaria.
This monument is perfect for creating those travel photos that make people say, “where the heck is THAT?”
Bulgaria the Great
So many AMAZING things to see in Bulgaria. Some natural, some manmade, some cultural, ancient, or modern. It is a truly baffling country, with as much historical diversity as there is geographical.
Please do venture beyond the streets of Sofia on your trip to Bulgaria!
If you are from Bulgaria, or have visited, what is your favourite hidden gem?